Two major causes of misspellings

Because of the rottenness of its spelling, learning to read and write English takes roughly ten times longer than other languages with Latin-based writing systems: three years instead of three months for reading and 10 years instead of one year for writing.

English spelling has been repeatedly corrupted since being developed from biblical Latin in 7th century.  Instead of just 44 spellings for its 44 sounds, it now has 205. And despite having many more spellings than sounds, 69 of them are used for more than one sound (a: at – any, apron;  ai: wait – plait, said;  oon – once, only…). This makes learning to read difficult too, not just to write.

Nearly all original English spelling patterns have ended up with exceptions. Some with very many, like ‘food – rude, shrewd, cruise,  group, move’. But two irregularities necessitate more word by word memorisation of unpredictable spellings than all others: 1) The randomly doubled and not doubled of consonants which affect 1272 words, like  ‘rabbit – habit, abridge – abbreviate; offer – profit, offend;  apple – chapel’  and        2) The use of 12 totally unpredictable spellings for the /ee/ sound in 459 words, as in ‘eel, eat, even, police,  believe, weird, people, me,  key, quay, ski, debris.’

Spelling of the /ee/ sound was made irregular in the 15th century, when after nearly 300 years of French domination, English became the official language of England again. The court scribes who had to switch from French to English wrecked Chaucer’s regular spelling of that sound, as in ‘speke, speche, preste, preche, beleve, reson …’.

They probably found the switch challenging. They may also have made English spelling deliberately more difficult, to prevent ordinary people from being able to learn to read and write too easily. They were losing their previously superior status as speakers and writers of French, obliged to adopt what had until then been mainly just the language of illiterate peasants. They can’t have been happy about it. (Nowadays many people are opposed to making English spelling merely a bit more learner-friendly.)

The English system of consonant doubling,  for differentiating between long and short a, e, i, o and u (as in ‘mane – manner), was ruined with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755. He revered Latin and believed that English needed to be made more Latinate in order to become fit for scientific discourse. Most learned treatises were still written in Latin even in the 18th century, just as Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica’ had been in the 17th.

Johnson therefore decided that words from Latin roots did not need to conform to the English method of using consonant doubling for showing that a stressed vowel was short, as in ‘rabbit, merry, silly, collar, muddy’. He left many of them looking as if they had long vowels (e.g. ‘habit, merit, lily, column, study), as in ‘rabies, merely, silage, colon, music’.  He damaged the system even further by using doubling after unstressed vowels – to register changes to their original Latin roots (as in ‘abbreviate, accomplish’ and ‘arrive’).

If the two worst dilutions of English spelling consistency were reversed, learning to write would become much easier. If it became permissible to spell the /ee/ sound regularly (e.g. eel, eet, eeven, poleece, peeple, beleeve, weerd, mee,  kee [quee], skee, debree) with perhaps [just a few exceptions], over 400 words would stop being repeatedly misspelt,  and teachers would not have to keep correcting them over and over again.

Regular use of consonant doubling, after all short, stress vowels (e.g. ‘habbit, merrit, lilly, collumn, studdy’), not merely after those that have them in dictionaries, would make an equally big difference. Combining this with the dropping of pointless doubling (parralel, comitt, acomodation), woud make it even better.

Amelioration of those two English spelling problems would make English literacy acquisition much easier. They have caused zillions of ‘misspellings’ since becoming  enshrined in Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. They have made learning to read much harder than need be too:  frieze – friend, dried;   hear – heard, heart;  even – ever; machine – define, engine;   latter, later – lateral;  attitude – latitude….

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